Supreme Court to Decide if Barring School Teaching Christianity from Aid Program Violates Constitution

Susan (no last names released) bows her head in prayer as she and fellow fourth-grader Carolyne (L) attend a prayer service to give thanks that no one has died since a car plowed into 12 children, including Vanessa, and three teachers the day before at Westminster Academy Christian Day School, …
David McNew/Getty

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a major case next term from Maine on whether students can use state aid to attend schools that provide religious or “sectarian” instruction, reviewing a Christian school that has been banned from an education program.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld a religious exclusion in Maine’s tuition assistance program for high school students. Under that program, “eligible students may attend the public or private school of their parents’ choice, whether inside or outside of Maine. But they may not receive tuition assistance if they attend schools that Maine deems “sectarian,” according to the petition for certiorari asking for the High Court’s review (or “cert petition.”)

This is the latest installment in an ongoing battle over whether a school’s being religious bars it from receiving state funds.

In a 2017 case – Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the Supreme Court held that children’s play areas run by religious organizations could not be disqualified from government grant programs on account of religious status. In the 2020 case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court extended the 2017 ruling to say that religious schools could not be disqualified because of religious status.

“The First Circuit seized on what it called Espinoza’s “use/status distinction” to uphold a religious exclusion in Maine’s tuition assistance program for high school students,” according to the cert petition, filed by the religious-freedom law firm First Liberty Institute, and the economic-freedom law firm Institute for Justice.

The Supreme Court must decide whether the Maine law at issue violates the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The cert petition concluded:

Whether there is a constitutionally significant difference between discrimination based on “religious status” and discrimination based on “religious use” is a profoundly important question, especially in the context of student-aid programs—programs that operate on the private choice of individuals.

…States should not be permitted to withhold an otherwise available education benefit simply because a student would make the private and independent choice to use that benefit to  procure an education that includes religious instruction.

The Supreme Court will likely hear the case in December or January and decide the case by June 2022.

The case is Carson v. MakinNo. 20-1088 in the Supreme Court of the United States. 

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